The death of a fictional character is always difficult for an author. You’ve lovingly created them, you’ve spent several years in their company; then you have to kill them off. The dilemma is further complicated if you’re writing about real people. And if you’re writing about historical figures, they already have a death assigned to them.
The eponymous heroine of my novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon) had the ill-luck of becoming an early victim of the Spanish ‘flu.
The epidemic swept through Europe and the US at the end of the First World War, and at its lowest estimate, claimed 21 million victims world-wide, a figure far higher than the war’s death-toll. (By comparison, the SARS outbreak in 2003 claimed 775 lives, while the avian ‘flu has killed 384 people in the last 10 years, according to the World Health Organization.)
The ‘flu came in two waves – in early 1918, and then again later in the year. But the first outbreak of the Spanish ‘flu (so-called because in neutral Spain newspapers were publishing accounts of the spread of the disease) is now understood to have originated as early as 1916 in a British infantry depot in Etaples, 20 miles south of Boulogne. All newly-arrived British troops were sent for training at the northern French camp so that at any given time over 100,000 men were in residence. Most lived in tents or temporary wooden barracks and conditions were overcrowded and unsanitary – a recipe for the spread of the respiratory virus.
In December 1916, dozens of soldiers at the camp began complaining of aches and pains, coughs and shortness of breath. As many as 40 % of these first victims died of what was described as “purulent bronchitis”. It was a horrible death, where patients literally drowned in their own blood, their faces turning a peculiar lavender colour – indicating cyanosis (where the lungs cannot transfer oxygen into the blood) ─ a tell-tale trademark of the killer ‘flu. Other early outbreaks are placed in the US (Camp Funston, Kansas) and in China, both in 1917.
In Dublin, eye-witnesses remember it as the Black Flu. “The Black Flu came in 1918. I was still a child. It was a horrible old thing. Well, my mother had the Black Flu and we only got her back from Heaven. Praying. And I remember sitting at her bedside and she was very, very sick. . . Oh, a dispensary doctor came up, but he had hundreds,” May Hanaphy told the author Kevin Kearns in Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History of the Dublin Slums.
The Spanish ‘flu felled the young and the healthy. Bella Casey was neither. Her health had already been compromised by erysipelas, a skin infection caused by the streptococcus bacteria. Known alternatively as “holy fire” or “St Anthony’s Fire”, the condition can cause high fever, shaking, chills, fevers, headaches and vomiting. The skin lesions enlarge rapidly and become inflamed. They are painful and hard to the touch transforming the affected skin so that it takes on the consistency of orange peel. Nowadays, it can be treated with antibiotics, but these were not available until 1928.
In Bella’s case, the skin rash may have been caused by an allergy to cleaning products of the time – predominantly soap and lye. Although an educated woman, she spent the latter years of her life in poverty working as a charwoman . In The Early Life of Sean O’Casey Martin Marguiles notes that “incongruously she always wore a pair of gloves and neighbours referred to her admiringly as ‘Lady Beaver’.” (Beaver was Bella’s married name.)
“She suffered from headaches which became progressively more frequent and severe, until she had to stop scrubbing floors. The headaches – symptoms of erysipelas – became so painful that she took to wearing a shawl, which made her white gloves appear more incongruous still.”
In the end, however, the Spanish ‘flu claimed Bella Casey. Her death certificate notes the cause of death as “Influenza, 10 Days Certified”. She was 52. Bella Casey died on this day 97 years ago, New Year’s Day, 1918.